Recently, a friend of ours from church passed away very unexpectedly. Bill was a gentleman in his 60's, and the unexpected part was that he was incredibly fit and healthy. He and his wife were healthy eaters, and often hiked, biked, swam and walked, and were often encouraging others in our congregation to join them in their outdoor activities. Our pastor shared a story of his own about Bill encouraging him - a much younger man - to begin biking again, and even went to a local sporting goods store with him to help him select a bike. But, this very vital and healthy man, while on an out-of-town trip with his wife, had a massive heart attack at the end of a 34 mile bike ride.
Day 1: On the day that the heart attack happened, calls went out in our tiny little church to tell everyone what had happened so that we could immediately begin praying for Bill.
Day 2: The next day was Wednesday, a day when our church normally gathers in the evening for a fellowship meal and a Bible study lesson led by our pastor. Since our pastor had gone to Tennessee to be with Bill and his family, one of our elders led the congregation in prayer for Bill. The prognosis was not good, he told us. Bill's brain had been deprived of oxygen for almost 45 minutes between the time the heart attack had happened and the time help arrived. His wife told us later that when she reached him, his eyes were open and staring. Our church began to pray earnestly for the complete health and restoration of this man who was so precious to so many of us.
Day 5: The following Sunday was 5 days after the heart attack. Bill was still alive though critically ill and in intensive care, and our pastor had returned from his visit with the family. He stood before the congregation on that Sunday morning and began to teach and instruct us, his flock, about a proper view of this situation. Yes, he told us, we must pray and petition the Lord - it is right and Biblical to do that. And we do not want to be like those who have not because they ask not. And yet, at the end of the day, no matter what happens, he told us, whether Bill lives or dies, we must bow the knee in humility and say "Father, Thy will be done." He exhorted us to think on Romans 8:28: "For we know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, those whom he has called according to his purposes."
Day 8: Eight days after the heart attack, our church met as a congregation again for our regular Wednesday night fellowship supper and Bible study. Again, our pastor exhorted us to view this situation rightly. He talked about the world and how, as a result of the Fall, it is broken and damaged. How we all will one day die as a result of the Fall, and how our only hope as sinful men and women is to repent and run to Christ, to be born again, to be given a new, spiritual nature that is imperishable, so that on the day of our death we can stand faultless before the Lord. He talked about the greatness of God, how nothing is impossible for him, even the complete healing and restoration of a heart attack victim, our friend, who had been deprived of oxygen for more than half an hour. A God who can create galaxies and oceans and zebras and mountains and whales and trees can do anything. But He is also sovereign and his will is perfect, and should He choose to take Bill in this situation, that would be right and good because He is right and good. We were told that Bill was being transported to a hospice unit that night. Some members of our congregation went to the hospice that night so that his wife would see familiar and loving faces when they arrived.
Day 9: More members of our church went to hospice to be with Bill and his wife. It was on this day, a Thursday and 9 days after the heart attack, that Bill died. Calls and emails went out exhorting us to continue praying for his wife and family and to give notice of funeral arrangements.
Day 12: Twelve days after the heart attack and 3 days after Bill had died, our congregation again gathered for our regular Sunday morning service. Our pastor opened the service by talking about Bill and how much he meant to our congregation. Again he exhorted us to humbly bow the knee before the Lord and his sovereign will. Then he told us a story about something that had happened the day after Bill had died. One of our church members was having computer problems on the day that Bill died, and so he had not received the email notifying us of his death. He drove over to the hospice unit that day to see Bill, not knowing of his passing. When he arrived, the hospice nurses on duty told him the news of Bill's death. And then they told him some of the details surrounding Bill's death. "It was an amazing thing!" one of the nurses told him. "The room was filled with people, and they were reading Scripture and singing songs of worship to God." What a glorious testimony to the Lord for this to be what the world saw as this dear saint left us to be with the Lord.
Now, this is not the typical experience for hospice workers. They know the ugliness of death, and they see how scary it can get at the end. Death comes unexpectedly, a thief in the night. That's why hospice units have grief counselors on standby, because people can really fall apart when they come to the realization that death really is coming. How many of us know the day and the hour of our death? We silly little humans bluster carelessly through our lives, never knowing when we will breathe our last. Are we prepared, each of us, as Bill was, to meet our Maker with peace and songs of joy around us?
I am so very thankful for the pastor of our small church who shepherded us - his congregation, his flock - through the death of our friend, an event both sad and joyous. His wife is still with us, and she has good days and bad days. She misses him terribly as we all do. And yet, we know that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. We know that those of us who are in Christ will one day see Bill again. We know that Jesus has gloriously conquered death (Heb 2:14-15). Thank you, Pastor, for reminding us to look up, for helping us to dwell upon eternal things, so that God might be glorified, even in this. Especially in this.